A Far Reach in Wireless Communications

A Far Reach in Wireless Communications

Kent L. Colby

Cellular service is growing in popularity and providers are gearing up to serve more of the state.

Whether in the throbbing heart of Alaska’s metropolitan hubs or in the bush, chances are you can phone home. Cellular telephone and wireless communications services are far reaching in the Last Frontier and the technology is growing.

From Barrow to Ketchikan, the Pribilofs, much of the Aleutians, the North Slope and throughout Alaska’s Interior, there is most likely a cellular service provider near you. It’s a broad statement considering Alaska’s size. In fact, much of the state is not covered by wireless or cellular. But, what service there is, directly aligns to the state’s population.

Staking Claim

Both Alaska Communications Systems and AT&T Wireless claim that the respective companies they purchased filed the first claim on the gold mine of cellular service in Alaska. MACtel, now owned by ACS, panned its first customer in August of 1988. Mcaw Cellular, currently AT&T Wireless, mined its first nugget the same month of the same year. According to Carl Reed, general manager of AT&T Wireless’ Alaska operations, Mcaw beat MACtel by three weeks.

Cellular Expands

As with the gold rush of a century ago, today’s companies are in search of more gold-in the form of customers who want constant communications. Cellular companies throughout the state have built, sold, merged, bought, expanded and evolved since that first start in 1988. Today, according to the Federal Communications Commission, there are some 17 active licensees in the state. It is difficult to break down just how many individual cell sites that includes, as most all of Alaska’s cellular providers are in a constant state of flux. The bigger companies have mostly all upgraded to digital, while still supporting existing analog phones. Much of the expansion for AT&T Wireless, a subsidiary of national telecom giant AT&T, is filling voids in the existing footprint that reaches from Homer to Trapper Creek, Glennallen to Valdez. Reed said the company is building at a vibrant rate and is scheduled to bring up 20 to 32 new cell sites within the next two years.

Manager since 1993, Reed acknowledges his bias when he said his company is a technology leader in the state. “We generally build and the others wait to see if it works before proceeding.” He says the company had digital data by the end of last year, giving customers access to e-mail and the Internet via cell phone. Called Pocket Net[TM], information is available at any of the company’s offices.

ACS, headquarted in Anchorage, now owns the northernmost cellular site in the country. Its acquisition of Cellulink and MACtel expands its coverage from Ketchikan in the south to Barrow in the north. The company’s coverage map takes in almost all of Southeast Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and much of the area from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Add Glennallen, Tok, Prudhoe Bay, Deadhorse, Kuparuk and Badami to fill in perhaps the largest coverage area in the state. ACS Vice President and General Manger Ruth Sandstrom says the company has 98 employees with offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks/North Pole, Soldotna, Juneau and Ketchikan.

ACS first offered digital service in Anchorage in 1993, to become the state’s first digital cellular service provider. Fairbanks was converted to digital in 1999, and last year the company converted all of Southeast to a fully digital network.

Cost Drops

It was less than six years ago when, as with gold fever, the rush for cellular service was vast and its prices in Alaska were the highest in the nation. Today’s rates are nearly on par with those Outside.

Also, an Alaskan with a cell phone is no longer a stranger to cell systems in the Lower 48. Rate plans are now available that eliminate expensive roaming charges. One plan reviewed, available from multiple providers at $59.95 per month, includes no roaming fees or long-distance charges nationwide and gives the subscriber 300 minutes of talk time monthly. In essence, travel anywhere in the U.S. and keep that same rate. Cellular local and long-distance rates are also now competitive with traditional instate long-distance carriers-as low as 10 cents per minute.

Alaskans who do a lot of in-state and out-of-state calling are already opting to throw away the land-line system and are converting to all cellular. Many basic packages include free call forwarding, call waiting, three-way calling, caller ID, message-waiting indicator and voice mail.

In Anchorage, ACS has a “People-plans” program that gives cellular users 2,000 local minutes (within a defined area) for less than $50 per month.

Some Glitches

Alaska’s mountainous terrain, the islands of Southeast and the Aleutians, the Interior’s scattered and sparse population, all create some unwieldy holes in cellular coverage. When traveling south, a cell phone owner will find similar holes throughout the Lower 48. There are still companies that are not set up to shake hands with nationwide plans, causing users to occasionally miss a call or two.

Who’s Who

The cellular prospectors providing service are not always the same as those who built the infrastructure. Consequently, there are many offices that serve as secondary vendors or sales offices for all the licensed carriers of cellular service. They sell the hardware and sign users up for service, all in one location. One such vendor is GCI. The Alaska-based company started in a garage in 1979 providing an alternate, interstate, long-distance service. GCI resells AT&T Wireless and has 17,000 subscribers in the Anchorage and Wasilla area.

The stakes are high as today’s telecommunications companies continue to prospect. GCI spokesman David Morris says his company spent $1.65 million in its bid for the “B-Block” of the Alaska’s personal connectivity service license it acquired from the Federal Communications Commission. Alaska DigiTel holds the “A-Block” of the coveted allocation. (The blocks refer to levels of service.) Where cellular service is “mobile” wireless, the personal connectivity service provides fixed wireless service so customers not on the grid or in underwired areas can receive a wireless connection with data speeds up to 512K, plus all the benefits of a wired connection.

GCI is also developing a local multipoint distribution system, or LMDS, to increase wireless penetration in its bid for existing and future customers along the telecommunications highway. The company paid the FCC $250,000 for the license. LMDS provides companies wireless connectivity that is faster than conventional wired connections. Morris says the company is vying to expand into the Fairbanks and Juneau market with these new services, as well as compete for the wired customer. This expansion will take special legislation from state lawmakers. It is a hotly debated issue during nearly every legislative session.

Who Benefits?

With the advances in telecom technology, rural Alaska will likely see the fixed, wireless service before it’s available in the urban areas, Morris says. The reference to “rural” applies to small, established Alaska communities and not necessarily the bush residents, miles from nowhere.

At best, Morris says, the implementation of either of these services on a grand scale is still two to three years away.

It was only a few years ago when the ratio of data to voice in the telecommunications industry was 10 percent data to 90 percent voice. That is rapidly changing. Today, the demand for data service well exceeds that of voice. Morris’ company, like most others in the state, is positioning itself to serve that growing need for data service.

The need for wireless data and voice service also increases the demands placed on an infrastructure that is a land-based network of copper wire and fiber-optic cable. GCI’s laying of a fiberoptic cable from Alaska to Washington, with a connection to Juneau, was to meet that demand, Morris says. A fiber loop is planned within two to four years, linking all of Southeast into that same fiber connection.

Room to Grow

There is no state regulation governing wireless technology in Alaska. What control there is lies with the FCC, which oversees licensing and coverage. Currently, no government body controls or regulates the rates that cellular and other wireless services charge. Those remain checked by the consumer, as the competitive market controls wireless rates.

As with the gold rush, where there was a growing support and service base to keep the industry vibrant, today’s demand on technology and information is met by dozens of data and communications companies throughout the state. In fact, telecommunications was considered a support service of industry and has now grown into an industry of its own. Telecommunications is now considered among Alaska’s fastest-growing sectors.

From the oil fields of the North Slope to the water transportation highways of the Pacific, not a fishermen, logger, banker, miner, student, businessperson, oil worker or family is without call for communication. Alaska’s companies are on the leading edge of technology answering that call as this modem-day Gold Rush for telecommunications keeps the state in touch with the world.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning